Background and History of Contextual Design

Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer first developed the key parts of the Contextual Design process while working at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the early 1980s. Karen, a psychologist by training, and Hugh, a developer, recognized the need for a coherent and structured design process that could integrate useful practices from their respective fields, and make it all accessible and actionable to design teams in commercial settings.

Holtzblatt's initial work was a response to the limitations of usability testing and human factors work as it existed in the early 1980's. Whiteside, Bennett, and Holtzblatt (Whiteside et al 1988) introduced and discussed the Background and History of Contextual Design theoretical foundation for using ethnographic and hermeneutic techniques to understand user practice for the purpose of systems design. At the time, usability methods were focused on lab-based quantitative measures, but these techniques are always limited in the amount of impact they can have and do not lead to wholly new insights and design directions.

Holtzblatt brought techniques from psychology and sociology to the field, showing how the kind of verbal protocol analysis used by Ericsson (Ericsson & Simon 1984) and Piaget (Piaget 1960) could be applied to data collected from users in the field. This data forms the bases for a Background and History of Contextual Design grounded theory, as defined by Glaser and Strauss (Glaser & Strauss 1967), and as such motivates design action. Contextual inquiry was defined as a structured method for gathering and using field data using this theoretical foundation.

The resulting techniques are similar in nature to an ethnographic study. However, contextual inquiry is constrained by the limitations of an engineering project. So field interviews are restricted to a few hours, not days or weeks, and the interaction between interviewer and user is defined as a focused conversation. The purpose of the conversation is to reveal and articulate the nature of the Background and History of Contextual Design user's work practice, and this purpose is understood and shared by both participants.

At the same time, Holtzblatt was adapting physical mockup techniques developed by Kyng, Ehn and others (Kyng 1988; Ehn 1988) to software. In Denmark, Scandinavian countries mandated that labor representatives be included in any redesign of the workplace by creating mockups of rooms and workstations using large cardboard boxes and other simple, physical representations. Sessions were conducted with the workers in which they ran through typical tasks in his simulated environment, redesigning it to work better as they discovered problems.

Holtzblatt scaled down this method for software, using Background and History of Contextual Design hand-drawn user interfaces on sticky notes to represent a proposed design and working through the user's own tasks, in their own workplaces, to explore the usefulness of the design. Together, designer and user would modify the prototype in the moment to eliminate problems and add needed function.

Work models were developed by Holtzblatt as a way to capture the discussion in design teams about user work practice - as a way to make elements of work practice explicit to all members of the team. The User Environment Design, similarly, was developed to capture the system structure and Background and History of Contextual Design function without sidetracking the discussion with user interface details prematurely.

The resulting Contextual Design process was first used at DEC and later gained acceptance in the rapidly growing Human Computer Interaction (HCI) community throughout the 1980's, following the same heretic-to-accepted-practice trajectory that the HCI field itself was undergoing (Caroll 2009). Following a series of articles on various aspects of Contextual Design in the HCI literature (e.g. (Beyer & Holtzblatt 1993), (Holtzblatt & Jones 1993)), the entire process was described in the 1997 text Contextual Design (Beyer & Holtzblatt 1997). In 2005, the follow-up handbook Rapid Contextual Design (Holtzblatt et al 2005)expanded upon the method and Background and History of Contextual Design provided more practical guidance. It also addressed an oft-heard criticism that the Contextual Design method could be too labor-intensive or lengthy for some projects.


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